- Anthony Zurcher
- BBC correspondent in Washington DC
When Joe Biden took office in January, he faced two massive and interrelated crises: the coronavirus pandemic and its consequent economic consequences.
They were challenges as obvious as they were anticipated. Now, however, the president faces his first political crisis from a different direction: immigration, since the border between the United States and Mexico experiences a new increase in the number of undocumented persons.
The nature of the crisis is not new, as most recent presidents have faced some form of immigration-related challenge during their tenure.
For Biden, however, it comes at a time when he would rather focus on other matters.
However, politics does not care what politicians prefer.
The immigration situation has the potential to derail Biden’s other plans, as he comes under pressure from criticism from Republican adversaries and some within his own party.
A big problem”
Speaking to reporters in the White House press room on Monday, press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged that the current situation on the US-Mexico border has become a “big problem.”
The total number of undocumented immigrants who have been detected at the US border is greater than in the same period in any of the previous three years.
And it grows at an even faster rate as it approaches the period when it traditionally produces the highest number of entries, in late spring.
In particular, the numbers of unaccompanied minors at the border have risen sharply in recent months.
About 15,000 unaccompanied migrant youth they were detained at the border in January and February. Last year it was 37,000 for the whole year.
In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic slowed down migration, the figure was 75,000. At this rate, that mark will be easily beaten.
As of Sunday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection was hosting 4,200 children in detention centers along the border and admitted an average of 565 children a day, most between the ages of seven and 13.
Part of this situation is the result of decisions made by Joe Biden at the beginning of his presidency.
He reversed a Trump administration policy of turning away unaccompanied children at the border, opting instead to process them and place them with foster families in the United States.
Criticisms and complications
Like many Democratic Party politicians, Biden was critical of Donald Trump’s decision, already reversed in 2018, to separate children from undocumented immigrant parents, and also of the draconian ways of enforcing immigration law policies. of the former president.
“Securing our borders does not require us to ignore the humanity of those who try to cross them,” Biden wrote in an executive order repealing the unaccompanied minors policy and establishing a blanket review of federal immigration procedures.
But these measures carry complications.
Migrants traveling from Central America have told the BBC that they do so because they believe that the Biden administration will give them an amnesty.
The president’s attempts to discourage travel have so far had no appreciable effect.
In his press conference, Psaki also pointed directly at Trump.
“The last administration left us with a dismantled and unworkable system, and like any other problem, we are going to do everything possible to solve it.”
“So our focus here is on solutions … The president is very focused on expediting what is happening at the border at every step of the process.”
Blaming the old one for a current problem is an old political maneuver, which usually has a limited lifespan.
If the situation at the border does not improve, the “big problem” will fall squarely on Biden.
Republicans see a gap
The president’s political opponents on the right appear to be enjoying the opportunity to use the situation on the border to their advantage.
While Biden and senior administration officials have toured the United States to promote the benefits of US $ 1 aid package, 9 billion recently approvedRepublican officials have traveled to the Mexican border and blamed Biden for what they see as a system overloaded and damaged by presidential measures that they believe are encouraging more illegal entries.
“The sad thing is that this did not have to happen,” said the minority leader in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, in a ceremony with the press in Texas.
“This crisis has been created by presidential policies of this new administration. “
After Democrats attacked Trump over “children in cages” – a result of his family separation policy – Republicans return the favor, accusing Biden of pursuing policies that put unaccompanied minors in equally dire situations. .
Immigration and border security were at the center of Donald Trump’s successful presidential bid in 2016, and some Republicans may see here a path to return to power in future elections, including the 2022 midterm legislative elections.
The former president himself has joined the chorus, although he has concealed the fact that recent migration trends began when he was still president.
“When I was president, our southern border was in great shape: stronger, safer and more protected than ever,” he said in a statement issued last week.
“Our country is being destroyed on the southern border, a terrible thing to see.”
For the conservatives, immigration is the “star” issue par excellence, that unites its base and exacerbates divisions within the Democratic Party.
Activists get impatient
Those divisions in the Democratic Party have come to the fore in recent days, as concern has grown among Biden’s more liberal supporters that Trump-era policies have not yet been overturned by the new administration.
For now, the United States’ border with Mexico remains largely closed.
And while unaccompanied children have been allowed into the United States, the rest have been mostly turned away; Y your asylum applications postponed.
Despite the Trump-imposed entry ban for those arriving from certain Muslim-majority countries has been lifted, the visa approval process for foreign workers remains suspended due to coronavirus restrictions, and temporary student visas are being suspended. they also face significant delays.
The patience of some members of the left is wearing thin.
“The longer we take to restore normalcy and address the problems of immigrants at the border – whether they are adults or children – the more the problem will worsen,” Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, from Minnesota, who was a refugee, told Politico this week. .
“Once we think of border people as human beings … we will have policies that are fair, humane, and that give them dignity.”
Meanwhile, moderate Democrats – like Congressman Henry Cuellar, who represents a border area with the Mexican district – said Biden’s team needs to do more to deter migrants from traveling to the U.S. and falling prey to the human traffickers.
“They are trying to be different from Trump, with which I agree,” he told Newsweek.
“They have to be different; we don’t separate the children. But the ‘human’ approach [de Biden], he’s actually feeding a narrative, twisted by evil people to get people to come. “
Biden has introduced comprehensive immigration legislation, but the prospects for approval in Congress are slim, at least as long as the Senate rule that requires 60 out of 100 votes to pass most bills lasts.
His administration does not yet have all the necessary staff.
The delays caused by non-cooperation in the transition by the Trump administration and the impeachment in the Senate in February prevent the main positions that the president has to nominate from being quickly confirmed.
And these are the ones who then have to select the staff of their agencies and departments.
Over the course of four years, Trump officials dramatically altered the way the federal government handles immigration in the country.
Liberals want those changes reversed as quickly as possible, so Biden – with multiple demands on his time and political capital – will be challenged to keep them satisfied.
His ability to do so, however, could determine how successful he is in holding together the coalition of disparate interests that made his presidential victory possible last year.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.